A Call Back to our Original Practice of Feminism in our Transition Houses

by Pauline Funston
originally published in Canadian Woman Studies
October 2000
There has been a great push toward methods of professionalism in our work in the transition houses and it will take every effort on all our parts to fight back and hold onto our practice of feminism. Feminist frontline workers saw our responsibility to the women who use our transition houses as being one of revolutionary practice for political change. Now our transition houses are being staffed by those who are able to get a degree in social services.
Now we see “clients” and provide a “service,” a clear indication of the dilution of feminist principals and practice. The battered women who come to the transition houses now sees us as other rather than the same as they are.
Let’s not forget that it was the battered women who saw the need for transition houses and went about creating and developing the politics of transition houses in partnership with crisis line workers. Our government must be pressured to take direction from us on what the standards should be. They have already been developed by feminists. The erosion of feminist standards towards professionalism is costing battered women their dignity, autonomy, and their right to participate in the feminist movement. If we accept government standards then we are reduced to becoming another social service which then individualizes the battered woman’s experience and works against political change for her and all women.
Around The Table
As a frontline worker I attended the National Conference on Domestic Violence in Portland Oregon. One workshop I attended was about feminism in the transition house. In attendance were other transition house workers, none of whom could claim, as I did, that they worked in a collective. They debated about what rules to set for their “clients” in their transition houses and whether or not these “clients” should be allowed to work in the transition houses once they left. I felt sickened to hear what professionalization has done to these women’s organizations and believed strongly that I would do what I could in order for that not to happen to us in Canada.
Daily, women gather around the kitchen table of the transition house to discuss what forces from outside are affecting them after leaving their abusive partner and how these forces collude with him in oppressing her. We talk about our lives as female children in a patriarchal system, finding out the effects were the same ever countries we came from and whichever religion we might belong to.
We would then continue to discuss and debate other issues, forming ideas and analysis of what each one of us has in common–being born female and being raised in an environment where “father knows best.” Our fathers are head of the family, head of state, head of the country, religious leaders, corporate leaders, and in the end, our husbands.
Now the analysis deepens. We no longer believe that a man’s attacks of a woman happened to her alone in the secrecy of their home. The extension of our oppression becomes clearer and we now recognize who is on the top and who is on the bottom and why attacking women keeps men in control and with all the power. We have been encouraged to pit ourselves against each other as any oppressed group is. Our isolation, we realize, is an effective weapon to sustain men’s power and control.
Yet in the transition house women are learning how and why it is important for us to share with one another our herstories and to give each other a helping hand when we are struggling in our day-to-day survival. Through this learning, and mutual aid, we begin to see how much we have experienced with an abusive partner and strategize on how to live safely and independently while we organize for political change.
Getting In Charge Of Her Life
Advocating for oneself is a foreign exercise to the woman who has been held hostage in a battering relationship. Those of us who work in transition houses know that by teaching these women how to create strategies and build alliances while confronting the system will advance their success at leading their own lives. As they negotiate their way through the system these will be their tools of power–the ones they will use when they leave the transition house, the ones they will use when they group with other women for political change. As frontline workers we know that it becomes easy to slip into “servicing” women by infantilizing them when we professionalize the work. To actively achieve her autonomy, a battered woman must be in the lead and see us, the frontline workers, as standing beside her. When we set up a hierarchy of power, by placing these women only in the hands of those with professional degrees, these women fall to the bottom of the ladder and we are reenacting the power dynamics they had to endure while living with their abuser. Our commitment to the autonomy of each woman who comes into our transition houses must be foremost in our theory and practice.
A Call To Action
It is important to realize that the battered woman who must establish a new life for herself and her children will have to use her time and energy to care for her children, find housing, take training, and look for employment. She must be encouraged and supported by us to participate in the women’s movement. The grouping of ex-residents for support, education, and action can lead to these women becoming a political force. They can come back to work in the transition houses, take part in political actions, and lobby the government for change. In feminist transition houses these women have found their voices through the collective sharing of power and in recognition of their equality. The mobilizing of ex-residents for political action can come about effectively when we nurture our relationships with them. The potential for political change is seen by the battered women in the short time she stays with us if we hold ourselves to feminist practice in the transition house.

Pauline Funston is a collective member at Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter. She is a transition house worker and an activist for over seven years. She has worked with many battered women over this period of time. She has travelled and lived in many different parts of the world on her own for extended periods of time, most extensively in North Africa and Asia. She is of a working class background, was raised in rural Ontario and has spent the last four years concentrating on making women’s liberation happen.